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Counting the costs

Culture | A new report reveals that the personal and social costs of viewing pornography are high

A growing body of research suggests that the habitual use of pornography-especially internet pornography-can damage people of all ages and both sexes, negatively impacting their relationships, productivity, and happiness, as well as their ability to function in society.

Last December, the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., held a "consultation" on the topic hosted by Robert P. George, a senior fellow at Witherspoon and the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. The meeting assembled leading experts in the fields of psychiatry, psychology, neurophysiology, philosophy, sociology, law, and political theory to present a rigorously argued overview of the problem of pornography in our society and to make recommendations. The organizers of the consultation, who call it "the first multifaceted, multidisciplinary, scholarly exploration of pornography since the advent of the internet," released a report this month titled "The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations."

"Since the beginning of the internet age, pornography has been consumed in greater quantities than ever before in human history, and its content has grown more graphic," said Mary Eberstadt, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. "Recent research suggests that pornography consumption-especially consumption of a more hard-core or violent sort-has negative effects on individuals and society. Widespread pornography consumption appears to pose a serious challenge to public health and to personal and familial well-being."

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Mary Anne Layden, director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that the overall body of research indicates that the realistic and accessible nature of internet pornography can lead to addiction that is so severe that users lose their marriages, families, and jobs.

"Pornography, by offering an endless harem of sexual objects, hyperactivates the appetitive system," said Norman Doidge, a M.D. at Columbia University's Center for Psychoanalytic Training who made a presentation at the consultation. "Porn viewers develop new maps in their brains, based on the photos and videos they see. Because it is a use-it-or-lose-it brain, when we develop a map area, we long to keep it activated. Just as our muscles become impatient for exercise if we've been sitting all day, so too do our senses hunger to be stimulated."

Pamela Paul, the author of Pornified, said, "Particularly on the internet, where much of pornography today is consumed, the type of sexuality depicted often has more to do with violence, extreme fetishes, and mutual degradation than with sexual or emotional connection."

With regard to porn's impact on children, Layden pointed out, "There is evidence that the prevalence of pornography in the lives of many children and adolescents is far more significant than most adults realize, that pornography is deforming the healthy sexual development of these young viewers, and that it is used to exploit children and adolescents."

Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse, director and senior fellow of Concerned Women for America's Beverly LaHaye Institute, added, "One study reported that the average age that a child sees porn for the first time has dropped from 11 years of age down to 9 years old. Just one wrong keystroke and a child has clicked onto hard-core pornography.

Crouse said that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has not enforced federal obscenity laws, allowing producers and distributors to freely spread pornographic content, even in public places: "The public and the DOJ cannot continue to look the other way when it comes to the explosion of pornography in America. The personal and social costs to society are far too costly."

More than 50 academic signatories endorsed the Witherspoon report, which concluded, "With concerted action from legislators, the therapeutic community, educators, policymakers, and responsible corporate leaders, however, some of the negative effects of pornography consumption can be combated."

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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